Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Appropriately for a film entitled mother!, the first word uttered onscreen is ‘baby’. It’s Grace (Jennifer Lawrence), calling not to her child, but her big egotistical baby of a husband (Javier Bardem), self-centred ‘Great Writer’ Eli, who has lost his inspiration and left the marital bed for a miserable wander outside their remarkable house. Renovated by her after a devastating and traumatic fire, from outside it looks amazing, though most of the time we experience it only from the inside. Glimpses of the outside world are from windows or open doors, and in the same restricted way our gaze is directed almost entirely through that of Grace, either from her viewpoint or focussing on her face and feeling her reactions. There’s the constant feeling that you’re not able to witness or judge anything for yourself. Many-sided, the house is reminiscent of the central hub of an old panopticon-style Victorian prison, designed so that every wing of the gaol was visible to central controllers. And here the house itself, lovely though it is, is the prison, ours and theirs, with its mellowly coloured and softly-lit rooms around a central staircase frustratingly only ever part-revealing themselves.
Knocks on the door of such a place always mean trouble, and here it comes in the form of Ed Harris’s ‘orthopaedic surgeon’, looking for a bed for the night. He seems a regular guy, though that’s a nasty cough he’s got, and he soon reveals himself to be a devoted fan of Eli, who jovially welcomes him in, somewhat against the instincts of his wife. The grip of a creeping unease is cracked open by the arrival of his wife the next morning. It’s Michelle Pfeiffer in enjoyably cynical Anne Bancroft form, who doesn’t take long getting tipsy and over-personal with the lady of the house. Now mayhem begins to take over as any power and control Grace might hold slips out of her fingers as her husband’s creative self starts to become renewed. The usual tropes of the bad house vibes that ensue – mysterious doors, odd sounds in the night, body parts in the toilet bowl, are suddenly cranked up by anarchic human behaviour, when the two Gleeson boys, Domhnall and Brian, as sons of the interloping couple, preposterously turn up to have a fight. WTF?? At this point you may feel the need to emit loud, unbelieving, nervous laughter. Save the muffled screams for later, because soon no nerve will be left unshredded, as Grace the interior decorator discovers the folly of over-thorough investigation of a blood stain, not to mention not properly bracing a sink (you just wait for that one).
What follows is very hard to sit through, partly because we feel so much that we’re inside the film, and the house, ourselves, identifying with Grace even as we egg her on to be more forceful. Some of the commonest anxieties get triggered – the invasion of our house (and personal space); the dark; bullying; and even the awkwardnesses of social etiquette – how do you tell the people your husband has invited that they’re not welcome if it’s in your nature to be polite? There’s a truly horrible claustrophobia as we long to get outside – the house, the cinema – as the breathless fury of the filming grabs hold of you, whirls you around in those spaces. The enclosed oppressiveness of Repulsion or Cul-De-Sac, with its black humour too, Rosemary’s Baby, even The Shining, with its blocked writer and a building itself a mute conniving witness to the horrors within, all are echoed here.
Like being consciously trapped in a dream you can’t shake yourself out of, you know it’s all preposterous. And how much more preposterous can it get?? Well lots. But when it comes to gut reaction, the preposterousness doesn’t matter, in fact it adds to the general unease – how far will this mad, inspired director go? Even when he seems to be ignoring all rules of plot and bringing a same scenario back again, so you might for a moment think he’s blown it and doesn’t know where to go next, he pulls it off. His audacity is boundless, even while your sensible brain knows it’s all too much.
Bardem, an actor I often find too melodramatic, is for once perfect for the crazy, infuriating contrariness his role demands, and Lawrence, with her expressive, madonna face straight off a medieval fresco, yet still a face which we are used to seeing onscreen as feisty, bold and self-possessed, is ever watchable, conveying self-doubt, passive suffering and shyness, roused all too late, and turns us into her.
Many chins have been knowledgeably stroked in attempts to give serious meaning to this story. It’s overloaded almost to meltdown with metaphor and allegory – archetypal parent figures, the destructive quality of the creative process, the evils of celebrity, male ego, the unfulfillable demands of others, the spoiling of perfection by crass humanity, a feminist parable, an archetypal myth of birth and destruction… it goes on, but all adds to the circus, and the true delight is in recognising some of these but still loving the scariest switchback ride you’ll have for a long time. So fasten your seatbelts; it’s going be a bumpy night. You’ll need to sit for a few minutes as the credits pass, to catch your breath and hook your lower jaw back onto the upper one. And remember – it’s only a movie, and this is what movies can do.
Seen at Empire Cinema, Sunderland, 15 September 2017